The Way Back Home
Riley knocked tentatively on Brass’s office door. He looked up and beckoned her to enter with a broad hand gesture before looking back down at his paperwork.
“Crazy week, huh?” she offered, meekly.
“Mm…” Brass returned, taking his pen to paper and signing his name before moving to the next page.
“For what it’s worth…” Riley began slowly, “I enjoyed working with your team. You were right. They are all very good at their jobs.”
Brass put his pen down and looked up. “Thank you. But why the sudden urge to compliment my team?”
“I’m heading out,” Riley explained. “Back to St. Louis. For now, anyway.”
Brass raised a single eyebrow. “For now?”
Riley chewed on her lip. “Well, if there are any job openings here… you’ll let me know, right?”
“I’ll keep you in mind…” Brass muttered. “But I don’t follow… Greg told me that you were really in your element in St. Louis. Your team moved like a well-oiled machine and you were their mechanic.”
Slowly, Riley nodded. “Do you think it’s possible for a team to be too close to each other?”
Brass considered this a moment. “I’ve never had that experience.”
Riley pulled out a chair and had a seat. “Like, let’s look at your guys. You were all level-headed enough to work the case cohesively and find Nick. Nobody went… crazy, or anything.”
Brass laughed, slowly. “You weren’t at the lab for most of it. Poor Mandy still has bruises on her wrists when Warrick became a little too emotional. We were all falling apart, Riley, but… We worked together to find him because we cared so much.”
And Riley took a moment to consider this. “Maybe. I don’t know. I like my team, I do. But I just don’t…” She trailed off, and as if on cue, her phone began to ring. She winced, as if someone had slapped her, before slowly pulling it out.
“Avoiding someone?” Brass asked.
She blinked at the phone. “Not this someone,” she said and held the phone to her ear. “Adams.” There was a pause. “Yes, I’m in a friend’s office… Because I’m working, Ash, now what’s wrong?” She frowned. “Yeah, I’ll be back tonight… Asher, spit it out.” Silence swallowed everything. Brass couldn’t even hear a voice on the end of the line as Riley stood there, wordlessly. She pursed her lips. She closed her eyes a moment, then opened them. “Yes, I’m still here… Yeah… Uh huh… Soon… Yes, Ash, soon, I promise… Bye.” In a daze, she took her phone and closed it.
Brass’s eyebrows were raised in intrigue. Riley blinked and came back to herself. She noticed Brass staring at her and glared. Her single word was terse and snarling. “What?”
“Hey, it’s not eavesdropping if you have the conversation in the middle of my office,” said Brass. “Something wrong?”
She sighed and pushed a stray strand of hair back behind her ear. She took a deep breath and held it a moment. “I…” She closed her eyes tightly again, and kept them closed before opening them wide and taking a deep breath. She shook her head to clear it. “Wow. I’m tired.” She tried to smile, but it was sad. “I have to… go home. Or… somewhere.” She turned to leave, then paused at the door, looking over her shoulder. She didn’t fully look at him over her shoulder, more off to the side. “Do you think, maybe… I could be a good CSI?”
“Huh,” Brass said, loudly, leaning back in his chair. “You? A CSI?”
She laughed and hung her head. “Yeah, I know. Never really thought about it myself, either. But, you know, when we were in that cab, it wasn’t… connections, or lists of names, or interviews, it was the fact that Greg knew Nick’s car. And it was your team, not my profile, who figured out it was a woman. The blood and semen that spoke to the rapes… Really, you guys made all the breaks. The objects said more about the crime than the people did. Greg figured it out. Not me. I’m… not used to that.” She turned to fully face him, her chin up, her brave face on. “But I’d like to learn. How they do it. It would make me a better… detective, a better cop, a better… person, maybe, even.”
Brass leaned forward in his desk and clasped his hands on top of his paperwork. “I think you’d make a fine CSI, Detective Adams.”
She gave him a small shrug and nodded her appreciation. But she didn’t say a word as she turned around and left.
“Get your feet off my coffee table,” Greg’s reprimanding whine buzzed in Nick’s ears.
The latter offered his friend a smirk and a pair of cocked eyebrows. “Oh, now the shoe’s on the other foot.”
“No,” Greg said, shoving Nick’s legs towards the left, but they didn’t fall off. “The shoes are on my coffee table.”
“Every Super Bowl,” Nick began, “every year, you slam your coasterless beer on my wood end table and kick the Doritos off my coffee table onto my carpet. I have the water marks and a permanent orange stain to prove it.”
“That’s your fault for hosting a Super Bowl party every year,” Greg returned. “Of course things get messy. And you have no evidence that links me to either the watermarks or the orange stain. Nothing that’s not hearsay, anyway.” He pushed at Nick’s legs again. “Seriously, dude, at least I don’t wear shoes when I put my feet on your coffee table.”
Despite being amused at Greg’s efforts to move Nick’s legs, the Texan decided it would be polite if he just took his feet down. “It’s not my fault for hosting a party, it’s my fault for inviting you.”
“So, you admit, it’s your fault,” Greg said, as he rested his own feet on his coffee table.
Nick gaped at his hypocrisy as Greg reached for the popcorn between them.
Greg glanced at Nick’s face, then his feet, then popped a puff of popcorn into his mouth. “I’m allowed to. It’s my house. Plus, look,” he gestured at his socks. “No shoes!”
But Nick just smiled. And he was grateful for this small sense of normalcy that seemed to have grown between them ever since they had split the last slice of pizza. Whatever distance that had inserted itself between them after Nick’s abduction seemed to have vanished, and Greg wasn’t afraid to relax around him anymore. The eggshells Greg had been walking on were all smashed to smithereens and he proudly ground them into the floor.
As Nick considered their long and predictable friendship, Greg had taken to channel surfing before landing on The Daily Show and leaning back in his couch. Nick turned his attention to the TV as silence settled in with them, like a third best friend. Every once in a while, Greg would emit a loud, curt guffaw at one of the jokes, but Nick, ever more subtle, would just give quiet, amused smiles.
It was the first moment, since what happened, that Nick really felt like things could get better. Like he might, someday, find his way back to normal, or at least what had passed for normal before. He thought about Walter and Kelly Gordon, mostly about Kelly, and how surreal life had seemed after she killed herself. Even just before Alexa had stolen him away from everything, he still wasn’t used to life above ground. He found it strange that it took another traumatic event to snap him out of his waking dead feeling.
Nick looked over at Greg, who didn’t seem to notice. He was holding his Corona close to his lips, his breath passing over the mouth of the bottle, before he took another sip and set it down again. He smiled at another joke and nodded his head in approval. Nick knew that Alexa’s kidnapping hadn’t solved anything. It had only made things worse. The only difference between what happened after Gordon and what happened after Alexa was that Nick had caved in and talked to someone about it. As he watched Greg now, he wondered why he had been so averse to talking to him before. He’d taken everything better than Nick had ever expected. And now that the secrets were all exposed, they held no power over him.
Trauma does not cure trauma. Nick knew that. If you’re slapped once, being slapped on the other cheek doesn’t neutralize the pain. Nick felt better, normal, for one reason, and one reason only, and that reason sat three feet away from him on the other end of the couch, drinking Corona and laughing at Jon Stewart.
Nick allowed his own attention to return to Greg’s TV. Just as he was reaching for the popcorn, there was a knock at Greg’s door. The two men exchanged confused looks.
“We already ordered pizza, right?” Greg asked.
“Go answer it,” Nick said.
With a heavy sigh, as if getting up to answer his door was not only a huge inconvenience but also a physical strain, Greg dragged his feet and his beer over to the door. “I hope it’s not Grissom or one of his emissaries dragging me into work tonight.”
Mildly curious why Grissom would come in person to make Greg work instead of calling on the phone, Nick kept his eyes on Greg at the door while his head faced the TV. He couldn’t see who was there, as Greg was blocking his view.
“Oh.” Greg sounded slightly surprised. “Um… Hey. You, uh, wanna come in, or… something?” Greg suddenly tensed. Nick strained his ears. He could hear something in the hall, but it was hard to make out over the TV. He wondered if turning the volume down would be too conspicuous.
“Whoa…” Greg said. “Was it something I said?” There was a pause. He stepped forward, into the doorway and hunched his shoulders, seeming concerned. “Jesus, are you OK?”
Nick didn’t hear a reply. He just watched Greg step out into the hall without a word to Nick and close the door behind him.
She had caught him off guard. The last person Greg had expected to see when he opened that door had been Riley Adams, and yet, there she was. “Oh. Um… Hey. You, uh, wanna come in, or… something?”
She looked as pale as the day Greg had first met her at Lincoln Meyer’s crime scene, and just like that night, her eyes were dry. Even so, Greg could tell that something must be wrong. Her somber expression didn’t help.
She opened her mouth to respond to his question, and the way her head began to move left, he anticipated that she would decline his offer. But before she could speak, the strangest sound escaped her mouth instead. It was something halfway between a sob and a whimper. She seemed as surprised by it as he was, as her fingers flew to cover her lips, as if horrified that everything would fall apart if she didn’t. But her emotions seeped out through the holes in her seams, the ones that had been slowly fraying ever since she’d left St. Louis. Her shoulders jumped up to her ears and she lurched forward, as if about to throw up. And then, her eyes shut suddenly and tightly, the wrinkles of them sprawling out towards her temples. Greg heard another muffled sob, and saw the tears begin to leak out of the corners of her tightly closed eyes. How this was possible, when merely seconds ago they had been as dry as the Nevada desert, Greg had no idea.
“Whoa…” Greg muttered, his eyes the size of quarters as he watched her deteriorate. “Was it something I said?”
She tossed her head back and almost laughed, or maybe it was another sob, Greg couldn’t quite tell. She inhaled a deep, shuddering breath, then let it out. She was quaking as she wrapped her arms around herself, taking a few more deep breaths. Finally, she was composed enough to speak. “I can’t go home, Greg… I can’t.” Her eyes closed again and her breaths came in staccato spurts.
He reached out across the door frame, but didn’t touch her. “Jesus, are you OK?” He watched as she crumbled, and he stepped out in the hall, closing the door behind him. He put his hands on her shoulders and tilted his head forward, trying to catch her eye, but they were closed so tightly, he didn’t think they’d ever open again.
Rather than explain, she responded to his touch by falling into him, her arms slipping around his torso as she clutched his shirt, her knees buckling. He caught her, but not before she pulled him forward enough to force him to come down with her. He kneeled and held her as she continued in her emotional breakdown for what felt like a year. Greg was alarmed that the sound of her sobbing jarred something in him akin to the feeling he got when he heard the piercingly shrill scream of wheels skidding on concrete. He felt as if something just beneath his solar plexus was tuning to the frequency of her sobs and as it vibrated like a tuning fork, it began to make him nauseous.
But after a moment, her sobs subsided. Her grip on him loosened, and then, she pulled away from him entirely, looking determinedly off to the right. Her lips were pursed and she wiped her eyes the back of her left hand. Her eyes were red and swollen, and she still quivered as if she were cold, but she sat silent.
Greg waited for her to say something, to explain her breakdown, but she just sat and stared. She folded her arms in front of her chest resolutely. Greg waited a whole minute. When it became apparent that she would not offer any unsolicited information, he decided to ask.
“So what just happened?”
She still refused to look at him. “I’m sorry.”
“What?” Greg’s eyebrows knit together, almost offended. “Don’t apologize. You don’t have to apologize. An explanation would be nice, though.”
“I used to… talk to Link, about these things…” Riley whispered, sounding far away. “He’s gone…” Another sob, late to the party, tumbled out of her mouth and scurried away. She closed her eyes, took a moment, and sighed. “He’s gone, and now… so is she.”
Greg wasn’t entirely sure what Riley was trying to tell him. “Who’s gone?”
She didn’t respond.
“Noemi,” she replied, quickly. “My partner. Noemi.”
“Yeah…” Greg said, slowly. “I remember. Where did she go?”
“Noemi…” Riley repeated. “Noemi’s… dead. Noemi is dead. And I’m in Las Vegas.”
Greg wasn’t sure how to respond. “I don’t understand what your location has to do with it…”
“I don’t…” Riley began, loudly, turning her head to face Greg again, but her eyes remained elsewhere, in this case, the ceiling. “I don’t like… feeling this way. It doesn’t work for me. I can do… sensible, calm, carefree, comic relief, indignant—that’s my favorite, indignation…” She lowered her eyes to stare into Greg’s. “I’m in control, with those. They allow me some form of outlet while still giving me the power in… any situation. But this… this…” Her eyes drifted away again, following her voice over the horizon of their conversation.
Greg found her words. “Grief. You’re grieving.”
She turned on him in an instant, her eyes flashing like headlights on a rainy night. “No. No. No, I can’t… I can’t think about them… Lincoln and Noemi… Link… Noems… No. I won’t.” She began to cry again and sobbed, “I won’t.”
“Riley,” Greg began, his voice a near whisper, as if he were speaking to a child. “How did Noemi die?”
Riley shook her head. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Then why did you come here?”
This question seemed to bring her back to the moment. She stopped shaking and looked at him. “Ash says I need to go home immediately.”
“So go,” Greg urged.
“I have a flight out tomorrow morning.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
“I don’t want to go.”
Greg’s tongue shot out and licked his lips. “Why not?”
Riley sighed. “My team. They’re… kind of like Noemi. In fact, she colored everyone’s mood. If she was happy, they were happy. If she wasn’t, well, she made sure to make the rest of us as miserable as her. I could tell how our day would go by what mood Noemi was in when I brought her coffee in the morning. It was like, surfing on an unpredictable sea of productivity and failure.”
“That’s not what I saw when I was there,” Greg said.
“You saw us at our best,” Riley told him. “Noemi was happy I was back.”
“I hate to sound… callous…” Greg paused, thinking about his words. “But, if Noemi affected your team’s mood, and she’s not there anymore, doesn’t that, sort of, fix that?”
“I don’t know…” Riley whispered. “I’m kinda scared to find out.”
“That’s why you don’t want to go back.”
“Greg…” Riley began, slowly. “If Noemi’s mood was our mood, if her successes and failures were all our successes and failures, then if she’s dead… aren’t we?”
“You look pretty healthy to me.” He shrugged. “I mean, Riley… Your world did not revolve around Noemi.”
“No…” Riley said, pensively. “Her world revolved around mine.”
“I don’t follow…” Greg said.
Riley smiled and shook her head. “Killed herself. That’s how she died.” Riley brought her finger across her throat and made a sound in the back of her throat. “Just like that, killed herself, and with her, took my whole team, my whole career…”
Greg was surprised. “Why? I mean… why would she do that? She seemed happy, stable when I was there.”
“She does that,” Riley said. “Or, did that. She was very good at it. Pretending to be normal. She wasn’t.” Riley took a deep breath and rose to her feet, dusting off her knees. “Well… I have to pack. So…”
Greg wasn’t sure what to do. He followed her lead and rose to a standing position. “You don’t have to go, if you don’t want to.”
“I have to pick up the pieces, don’t I?” Riley asked. “Step up. Be a leader.” She extended a hand, formally. “It was nice working with you, Greg Sanders. Hopefully, we can do it again.”
All too aware of the shift to the formal acquaintance atmosphere, Greg humored her, letting her have the distance she had shoved between them, even though he secretly wanted to embrace her and tell her that it was OK to grieve. He took her hand. “I would like that.”
She gave him a curt nod, then turned around and walked down the hall. Greg watched her go, and, despite his words, thought that this would be the last time he would ever see Riley Adams.
He opened the door to his apartment and stepped inside, feeling emotionally drained. He had just seen two people open up and break down in front of him within the span of six hours, and it was far more exhausting than he’d ever considered. But as he looked at Nick, who sat on Greg’s couch pretending not to notice that Greg had come back inside, he knew that at least one of those people would be all right, in the end. He was less certain about the other.
Greg looked at the program Nick was watching. “Oh, are we into Colbert now?”
“Yeah, he’s talking about sheep in—”
“You’re not even going to ask who was at the door,” Greg interrupted.
Nick blinked, then looked at Greg with a blank expression. “I figured if you wanted me to know, you’d tell me.”
Greg’s lips smirked. “You were listening at the door, weren’t you?”
Nick looked offended. “Me? Why would I do that?”
“Riley,” Greg told him. “It was Riley.”
Nick’s expression softened. “I know.”
Greg sighed as he walked over to the couch and sat down, the bowl of popcorn between the two of them. “People. Life. So weird and confusing and unpredictable…”
“Yeah…” Nick agreed. “But I mean… c’mon. Really. Would you have it any other way?”Greg looked at him out of the corner of his eye. And grinned.